Syrian peace talks on hold for the day

Associated Press
U.N. mediator for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi gestures during a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. Syrians on opposite sides of their country’s civil war tried again Monday to find common ground, with peace talks focusing on an aid convoy to a besieged city that once more came under mortar attack from the government. Brahimi has seen faces like these before, barely able to remain in the same room, much less speak to each other. Lebanese, Afghans, Iraqis, now Syrians. Even, two decades ago, Algerians like himself. For days now, the veteran U.N. mediator has presided over peace talks intended to lead the way out of Syria's civil war. He brought President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition face to face for the first time on Saturday, while still ensuring that they don't have to enter by the same door or address each other directly. He is 80. He is patient. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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GENEVA (AP) — Tense negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition broke off earlier than planned Tuesday amid demands that President Bashar Assad put forward another proposal for the future of the country.

The fifth day of talks focused on the transfer of power and helping besieged parts of the Syrian city of Homs. But there has been little progress toward resolving a key issue of whether Assad should step aside and transfer power to a transitional government.

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi opened the morning session reviewing the principles of the Geneva Communique of June 2012, a broad but ambiguous proposal endorsed by Western powers and Russia to provide a basis for negotiations. Assad's role in any transitional government was a red line during those negotiations and left vague. The United States and Russia disagreed about Assad's role, but they signed the communique.

By mid-afternoon, Murhaf Joueijati, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition's negotiating team, told reporters the Geneva talks were breaking off for the day to give time for the government to make its proposal about the future of the country within the context of the 2012 accord.

On Monday, the government presented a working paper on Syria's future, which Joueijati said the opposition rejected because it "had nothing to do with a transitional government."

"We do not know what to expect tomorrow. They are going to try to change the subject yet again," he predicted. He also accused the government of holding up the delivery of aid to Homs.

One complication in doing that and evacuating the city's residents is that the opposition delegation does not control armed groups inside Syria, including al-Qaida-backed militants, who do not feel bound by agreements reached in Geneva. These groups gained control of Syria's uprising as it evolved into an insurgency.

Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition negotiating team, told The Associated Press the transition specified in the June 2012 accord remains "our main priority at the moment."

But he said central Homs, which has been under siege for nearly two years, remains a priority because "the regime is still insisting on its systematic starvation policy."

The focus on Homs and the release of detainees on both sides in Syria are meant as confidence-building measures. A tentative agreement was reached in Geneva last weekend for the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in.

In a statement released Tuesday, Gov. Talal Barrazi said police, paramedics and members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are ready to arrange the evacuation and "we are waiting for the U.N.'s response." But Brahimi said security problems are delaying the evacuation.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, told reporters that trucks are on standby to deliver food and help those who choose to be evacuated. But he added, "We need that all security conditions be met to allow this interagency convoy to go."

Louay Safi, a member of the opposition's negotiating team, said it proposed at Tuesday's meeting lifting the siege by rebels of three towns and villages: the Shiite ones of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province and the Damascus suburb of Adra, which is mixed.

Safi said the rebels had besieged them because they considered they were being used by government forces as a "launching pad" to attack Aleppo.

He said there has been no progress on Homs because of concerns the people who leave it would not have sufficient protection.

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